Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Real Story on Food Safety

The unusual suspects
As food production and preparation moves farther afield, tainted items become hard to avoid
By Arthur Allen
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

If you were planning to serve shrimp during the holidays, you might not want to talk to Michael Doyle, director of the Food Safety Center at the University of Georgia. You see, most of the shrimp sold in the United States, as well as the tilapia and some other fish, are grown in ponds on small farms in China and Southeast Asia. Doyle has visited those farms. What they feed the fish doesn't belong in a family newspaper.

Most of us have long been aware that raw meat is crawling with pathogenic microbes. For most Americans, avoiding it is common sense. Undercooked chicken? Send it back. Steak tartare? Non, merci.

But shrimp? Tilapia? Spinach? Peanut butter? Cookie dough? And how about apple juice?

The increasing number of front-page outbreaks and the high-profile critiques of the food system by such writers as Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") and Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") can give the impression that the U.S. food supply is spiraling out of control. But is Americans' food, in fact, more dangerous that it was in the day of home-cooked meals? People who have studied the numbers aren't convinced. The food supply is certainly safer than it was 100 years ago, experts agree, and probably a bit safer than it was even two decades ago, according to CDC food safety expert Robert Tauxe. That said, it could be a lot safer -- and there are real reasons to worry.

With improved surveillance, more outbreaks are identified, which can make things seem worse than they were in the past. The CDC tracks food-borne outbreaks primarily through two networks, called FoodNet and PulseNet. FoodNet uses hospital records and microbial testing programs to trace the spread of pathogens, while PulseNet uses genetic fingerprinting to link cases of illness. Read More

I have to give credit to a reporter when a balanced, informational piece is written about food. It’s interesting that he even counters some widely held beliefs, such as the myth that e. coli was created by modern livestock production methods. I also really appreciate that he emphasized the fact that properly handling and cooking meat will eliminate the risk of any food related illnesses. Our food safety system isn’t perfect, but I wouldn't trade it for any other system in the world. Unfortunately, since humans aren’t perfect, our food safety system never will be either, but we will never quit trying to make it better. And it only helps when we get reporters who write informational pieces rather than creating fear about food.

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